Francois Mauriac

Author: L'Osservatora Romano

Francois Mauriac


We met Mauriac one day during Easter Week this year at his beautiful apartment in Avenue Theophile Gauthier at Paris. He was seated on a divan in pain because of a broken shoulder blade which he had suffered a few weeks before, yet he generously lent himself to conversation, brief but basic. His voice, which had always been soft and low, was now hardly a breath. But his mind was alive.

After a few remarks about his health he spoke about means of communication such as cinema and television in regard to the task of conveying the Christian message and discussing the problems raised by Christianity. Contrary to expectation, he said he was optimistic about them, as an indispensable supplement to literature. He looked forward to the appearance of able and disinterested people who might bend those means, which are indifferent in themselves, to the noble aim of educating the masses. He also referred to the negative effects which flow from perverse or merely individualistic use of cinema and television.

As a man of letters, he had never ceased being aware of his times and involved in their problems. This is why be carried on a long political campaign by means of his pen-in his Bloc-Notes published in one or other Parisian newspaper. He devoted his mind to the problems facing France and the world and all those social, political, cultural and religious changes which accelerated in the last decades of his existence. He lived till he was almost 85, so his life stretched far back, to times and persons which are already historical.

He was born at Bordeaux and took a degree in Letters. He then devoted the whole of his life to writing and journalism, producing poetry, then novels essays, biographies, history and plays- more than a hundred titles in all. His first collection of poetry was published at his own expense. Three years later (1912) he founded a Catholic review entitled , and soon began to write his novels, the first of which appeared in 1920. published in 192;, brought him international fame, and in 1933 he was elected to the French Academy, by a first-count unanimous vote. The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded in 1958 "for the penetrating psychology and artistic intensify with which he has expressed the drama of human life in his novels." The general public had long held the opinion expressed by the Nobel Prize givers. Mauriac's novels enjoyed enormous sales. sold more than a million copies. sold nearly as many, and was translated into thirty languages. and came near these figures.

Mauriac was a man of orthodox faith and constant practice. He was a convinced and a convincing Christian. Yet many of his novels dismayed Catholics with their pessimism, their presentation of vice in all its turpitude, and his continual near obsession with sin. But there was no mistaking the fidelity with which he represented the realities of living and showed that no kind of happiness is possible without God. He displayed the squalor and emptiness of souls from which faith is missing. He exposed the misery and horror prevailing in some families which are outwardly in order.

It has been well said that Mauriac is not a novelist of the human condition, but of the human exile. He does not depict man's humanity: he depicts his fall, his loss of grace, his deprivation of paradise, his concupiscence, and the sad weight of heredity which lies upon his free will. He showed the power of the flesh and its apparent incompatibility with love for God; he described the final vanity and despair of passion and even-according to Francesco Casnati -of Christian marriage. In Mauriac wrote: "Every human love sets up a block against the one Love, and so involves and marks its own destiny." But the same human souls which he studied with such pitiless pessimism when at their lowest and in their greatest misery, are forced to raise their heads, to look up. His constant purpose was to show the contrary of all that sadness: to demonstrate the value of Christ's words "Without me you can do nothing" and to do so by means of human decadence.

His activity as a novelist was really coming to an end already at the end of the 30's. He took an active part in the political controversies of France and Europe in that decade: he opposed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, General Franco's war in Spain, and the Munich Pact. He supported the Basques against

Franco and he was the only member of the French Academy to make a stand against Marshal Petain. He stayed on in France during the occupation, took part in the Resistance, and after the liberation of Paris in 1944 campaigned for a "great common front against fascism." His adversaries accused him of going along with the Communists, but his attitude was really the result of a higher, national view: he saw a need for all Frenchmen and Frenchwomen to be united against the forces in France which had led the country to ruin, but also to be united in confessing that they themselves had contributed to that collapse. He esteemed General de Gaulle because of his ability to rally the French, but at that stage did not approve his political initiatives, particularly his foundation of the ""

During the fifties he continued to lend support to the ideal of a great democratic and liberal union of all the French under the leadership of De Gaulle and Mendes-France. But facts and events made such a goal impossible, for France entered the great crisis of the collapse of her colonial empire in the Far East and in Africa, the great events of which were the defeat at Dien-Bien- Phu, the withdrawal from Indochina, and the independence of Algeria. Mauriac was for decolonization, and at the height of the crisis he supported de Gaulle without enthusiasm, as the only alternative to catastrophe.

From that moment began his agreement with and admiration for the General, which was to be expressed in many a fervent Bloc-Note, and reached its peak in his , published in 1964. Yet he did not hesitate to reproach him for the lack of moral renewal in France.

Mauriac's political commitment continued right down almost to his death. His Bloc-Notes were his weapon, and besides the political war he also carried on the literary dialogue through them, sometimes with comments on his colleagues which were as caustic as they were illuminating. He was noted for his fine humour and his brilliant yet deep conversation.

His death marks the end of a period in the history of French literature and is a sad loss, not only for French, but also for the world's cultural life.

Mauriac's work will continue to arouse debate. He dealt with important literary problems, such as the perennially unsolved one of "the Catholic novel." Two aspects of his personality which are continually coming to light in his work seem to be in contrast with each other: the artist in him and the believer in him. But at the same time they express his fundamental sincerity, and are not simply the result of philosophical or theological thought. Together, those two aspects sought to transpose a view of life into art; as he himself said they tried to make the Catholic universe of evil apprehensible to the senses. by touch and smell as it were.

The problem which Mauriac struggled with was well expressed by another French Catholic novelist, Julien Green, who said that he would like to know whether the fact of writing a novel is compatible with being in a state of grace. The English novelist Graham Green replied by saying that there is no need to try to be explicitly Catholic, for, if you are Catholic then the fact will fill your work and come out on all sides.

There is no doubt that Mauriac has left his mind and personality as part of this century. His little would alone be enough to win him honour, for its striking and paradoxical observations have touched many souls most profoundly.

Taken from the September 17, 1970, issue of "L'Osservatore Romano". Editorial and Management Offices, Via del pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.